Breathe New Life into Your Facility

Break the Band-Aid Habit. Fix Your System Right the First Time

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As control system integrators, we hear stories all the time about issues and pain points that processing facilities are enduring, many seeing no light at the end of the tunnel in terms of a solution. Many of these issues can be traced back to the condition of the facility's control system. We often ask potential clients what it would take for their company to invest in removing these pain points. Sometimes they aren't sure. Other times, they are seeking someone that will help them uncover that answer. The plant representatives we visit with often have an understanding of their greatest problem areas. But simply having awareness of a problem, regardless at which level within the organization, does little to actually drive change.

One of the greatest obstacles that facility managers and system integrators alike run into is that plant executives often know little about the current reality or physical condition, and sometimes dilapidation, of the control system running their facility. They recognize symptoms of a problem, such as increased frequency of unplanned downtime or lack of throughput compared to a sister facility or competitor. Perhaps they realize that their system lacks robust track-and-trace capabilities, or maybe quality issues have begun to surface. Regardless of which it is, in the process of recovering from an incident (such as downtime) teams put all their energy into getting the plant back online. While in the heat of the issue, they know they should be more proactive. They may even vow to themselves that they "will never let this happen again." But the system is brought back online, daily operations steal their attention, and they settle back into the false comfort that things are operating smoothly.

If any of this sounds at all familiar, it's time to take heed. Processing plants frequently have no plan in place or have no realistic ideas for improvements and upgrades.

When discussing a potential project with a client, we often hear something like "we know it's bad (old, antiquated, etc.); we just don't know how bad." They know something is needed in order to get the plant operating efficiently again. However, at the same time, any solution presented has to get through the capital approval process, and we're all well aware of how difficult that can be at times. Ultimately facilities need a solution that they can get funding to implement; and this is commonly how the cycle starts. The plant moves forward with a temporary solution that is quick or cheap (or both) to avoid further downtime or dealing with a long approval process. A band-aid is placed on the situation in order to move forward. Then something else happens, and the process is repeated. Before you know it, band-aids are everywhere.

If you recognize this situation, the question begging to be asked is, "How long will your company continue to implement temporary solutions, barely getting by, instead of digging in and solving the real issue?" There is a point at which more mud and straw creates a bigger mess. It's time to break the patch-and-cover cycle for your facility.

Before going further, let's agree for purposes of this discussion on a definition for the term band-aid or what might constitute a repair being given that sort of classification. Anything that includes requiring the purchase of used parts due to aging equipment or replacing products that a manufacturer no longer produces/supports would be a band-aid. A "quick fix" might be replacing an I/O card or PC that frequently locks up. Maybe you're working on an old network infrastructure that is slow or offers limited functionality; any maintenance done on this system would likely be considered a band-aid. Additionally, almost any time your upgrade involves putting forth the least amount of effort or moving forward with the most inexpensive option to get back up and running, only delaying the inevitable, would definitely be regarded as a band-aid and should be considered as a last resort rather than a first option.

The last thing we would suggest is a complete rip-and-replace of the control system each time a minor issue arises. However, too often companies will go the route of a temporary solution because "that's what we do every time something like this happens." Think about your company's philosophy and procedures for updating equipment and systems. Do you have formal migration plans in place for your existing hardware or software systems? Is your team thinking ahead, or have you adopted the mantra of "we'll fix it when it breaks?" Being proactive about your facility's infrastructure and having migration plans in place will eliminate a great array of problems and questions, not to mention a few headaches, when issues do arise, and often before they become a major concern.

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